The Ninety-Seven Percent Problem

Public opinion on global warming/climate change has been relatively stable for some time across the globe. Naturally, there are variations between nations, age-groups, and time-periods, but most surveys show a rough division of opinion between two-thirds of respondents who believe that global warming is largely caused by human activity and a serious threat to the world, and those who are skeptical on both points.

Of some moderate interest is that older people and those on the Right (Republicans, Conservatives, Tories) are somewhat more skeptical than younger people and those on the Left (Democrats, Labourites, etc.) Inevitably, however, the explanations for these examples of partisanship are partisan too.

Are young people more idealistic and global-minded in their concerns? Or are older people simply wiser because they’ve experienced other official “scares” as they've gone around the block? Do Democrats have more trust in government forecasts than the GOP? Or do Republicans have a stronger nervousness about rising costs of policy and the bottom line?

There are no correct answers to these questions because partisan attitudes tend to change when we change the subject. Democrats tend to be more concerned about rising costs when the money is spent on defense programs. Republicans trust official forecasts more when they show that tax cuts cost less or even repay themselves. And so on, and so on.

That said, it’s oddly interesting (i.e., counter-intuitive) that political partisanship seems to operate on global warming as strongly among scientists as among the rest of us. A Pew Research survey for this year’s Earth Day showed that while Democrats with a high degree of scientific knowledge were likely to have a strong belief in the human contribution to climate change, Republicans with the same level of information were much more skeptical.

These are intriguing, even embarrassing, results. The researchers plainly thought so, because they added this somewhat nervous comment on them:

A similar pattern was found regarding people’s beliefs about energy issues. These findings illustrate that the relationship between people’s level of science knowledge and their attitudes can be complex.

And maybe they illustrate something else, too. For these results seem to conflict with perhaps the single best known statistic about science and global warming, namely that 97 per cent of scientists believe in global warming. To unpack that claim, they believe that global warming is happening, it’s man-made, and it’s dangerous. That’s President Obama speaking. Former Secretary of State John Kerry added the word “urgent.” And that’s pretty much the internationally respectable orthodoxy of officialdom and the media. Anyone who dissents from it is labelled a “climate denier” and, as Herbert Spencer said of such judgments a century and a half ago, “nothing he says thereafter need be listened to again."

But that raises a doubt. If ninety-seven per cent of the scientists you meet believe in global warming, how come that many Republicans knowledgeable about science don’t believe them?

The shape of things to come?

That simply wouldn’t happen, and we can say that on scientific grounds. People are sensitive even against their will to the opinions of those around them. As the great sociologist of religion, Peter Berger, pointed out in “A Rumor of Angels” some years ago, if you were marooned on an island inhabited entirely by believers in astrology, you’d be saying six months later that there really might be something in this “governed by the stars” stuff. And if you want brilliant fictional explanation of that, read H.G. Wells’s superb early science fiction short story: "In the Country of the Blind."

That so many people who take science seriously also doubt the orthodoxy of global warming cannot simply be explained as the result of their blind political partisanship. That might bias them but it wouldn’t outweigh the overwhelming testimony of 97 per cent of scientists they either meet or read.

So maybe that 97 per cent is a mistake. Once that question is raised, moreover, it soon becomes clear that whatever that statistic is, it certainly isn’t the unvarnished truth.

If you want the short version of why that is, please have a look at this, in which Dr. John Robson takes you on a witty and entertaining tour of how that statistic was compiled and sold to the world with fun graphics and Ravel’s Bolero as a soothing background.

Among those organizations that suspected something was wrong with 97 percent figure was the Competitive Enterprise Institute in Washington which, among other tasks, has a watching brief on Green Ideology run amok. The 97 percent claim is an obvious target for the CEI. On July 19 last year, it submitted a formal complaint to NASA, which has on its website the claim that 97 percent of climate scientists agree humans are responsible for global warming.

Though more or less bogus, that claim was a boon to climate skeptics because U.S. government agencies have to meet certain standards when they make such assertions. So they can be held to account for misleading statements. When CEI filed its petition, for instance, it did so under the Information Quality Act (IQA)—pointing out major flaws in studies cited by NASA to justify its claim and asking NASA to remove it from the website and any materials it circulated.

The substantial flaws it finds in the studies include arbitrarily excluding from the surveys scientists who have published peer-reviewed articles in journals of climate science on the grounds that they were not climate scientists; misrepresenting the conclusions of scientific papers, as the scientists concerned later complained, to make them fit the desired conclusion; and above all assigning papers that expressed no opinion on man-made global warming into the 97 per cent column.

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When these failings were corrected, the 97 percent estimate fell massively in all cases to numbers ranging from one-third of climate scientists to 1.6 per cent! As yet the CEI-NASA dispute remains as unsettled as the science now seems to be. If you wish, you can add your signature to the petition CEI has launched, and unless NASA has some almost magical reply to CEI’s documented critique, you probably should.

For the 97 per cent statistic, in addition to looking like a myth, is and always was a club to beat down any criticism of, let alone opposition to, the “international community’s” vastly expensive plans to revolutionize the world’s economy along dirigiste lines. And before it started to wobble under Dr. Robson’s and CEI’s criticism, it also performed the vital function of sustaining the all-but-monolithic support for global warming shown by the statistics of popular opinion quoted at the start of this column.

Now that the key 97 per cent statistic is crumbling, however, how long will the other statistics showing a two-thirds majority believing in mankind's culpability in "climate change" remain dominant, let alone stable?


Setting the Record Straight on the Climate Debate

It is difficult to know to what degree the general public believes the direst forecasts of climate catastrophe after years of having been endlessly frightened by “expert” predictions that have repeatedly failed to materialize, but one thing is certain: the vast majority of us are not hearing both sides of the debate. With most other big controversies, mainstream news generally allow token counterarguments, at least occasionally. Not in this case. Dissent against the prevailing view that humanity drives “climate change” is essentially off-limits on most of the airwaves and in print. Censorship of the opposition is accepted as good journalistic hygiene. Indeed, the Los Angeles Times proudly declared it would no longer accept letters to the editor that challenged the validity of anthropogenic climate change.

Because they control the narrative, climate alarmists are virtually unchallenged, even when they are demonstrably dishonest. No propaganda has been used more effectively by them than claims that the science is “settled” and that 97% of scientists believe humans are the primary cause of global warming, an idea which originated in this paper. What the alarmists would never confess is that the assertion was quickly debunked by Legates, et. al., who wrote,

"In fact, however, there is a decided lack of consensus among scientists, and especially among those who are trained in climate science or have studied it extensively. The 97.1 % consensus claimed by Cook et al. (2013) turns out upon inspection to be not 97.1% but 0.3 %. Their claim of 97.1 % consensus, therefore, is arguably one of the greatest items of misinformation that has been circulated on either side of the climate debate."

Shamefully, even NASA is trafficking in the myth.

Another especially clever persuasion trick, which attempts to cultivate confirmation bias in the alarmists' audience, is to attribute every category of weather outlier to anthropogenic climate change. For example, "climate change" is blamed for stronger tornadoes and weaker tornadoes, shrinking sea ice and growing sea ice, violent hurricane seasons and quiet hurricane seasons, faster winds and slower winds, too much rain and too little rain, coldwaves and of course, heatwaves. If what we read is to be believed, either end of a range of a weather can only be the result of man-made CO2, rather than an intermittent, but perfectly natural, ancient phenomenon. The hucksters and hysterics have made anthropogenic climate change unfalsifiable. Every unpleasant divergence from mild, seasonal weather, they will swear, confirms our impending doom.

Outside of wonkish blogs, scientifically strong counterarguments to the pervasive misinformation are rare. One merely has to Google "climate change" to see how lopsided the leading links are. When a politician with no scientific training, and a sympathetic child manipulated by her elders for cynical reasons are the public faces of the climate debate, we can be certain that the discussion is closer to political science than actual science. Of course, climate alarmists have tremendous political and financial incentives to continue their crusade, and as long as that's true they're not going away.

The main threat to climate hysteria is the actual scientific data and its proper analysis. A widely accepted global temperature dataset published by the University of Alabama at Huntsville shows only a +0.13 degrees Celsius per decade trend in the monthly anomaly data since 1979. The term “anomaly” refers to the deviation of a month's temperature from a 30-year baseline (average) temperature. The current baseline is the global mean for the period 1981-2010, and the temperatures in the global database are derived from measurements of the microwave emissions of oxygen in the lower troposphere using satellite sensors.

There are a few important notes about these measurements. First, assuming the Earth is approximately four billion years old, these four decades of satellite data represent one-millionth of 1% of geologic time. That is analogous to about three tenths of a second out of an entire year. Drawing important conclusions about Earth’s climate from such a razor-thin sliver of time would be foolhardy. Furthermore, there have been periods of climatic history that have been far warmer and far colder than today, and the fluctuations observed in the recent past may simply be variations of little consequence in a milder middle range. More importantly, the trend line of +0.13 degrees Celsius per decade with respect to a baseline mean implies that we are currently only about a quarter of a degree Celsius – less than half of degree Fahrenheit – over the baseline. In other words, much of the world is freaking out over a short-term average anomaly of a quarter degree Celsius, which could be caused by a large number of variable natural drivers. Popular science will not tell us that.

The professional science literature provides us with both sides, however. Three central questions climate scientists are actively trying to resolve pertain to feedbacks, causality, and model sensitivities. Negative climate feedbacks are mechanisms that cool the Earth or mitigate temperature increase. One of the most notable examples is the “iris effect”, a controversial theory proposed by MIT climate physicist Richard Lindzen and his co-workers, which states that warming water temperatures reduce cirrus cloud formation, resulting in greater heat loss and a net cooling effect. Recent independent research appears to confirm the theory. Studies of climate causalities seek to match observable climate states or outputs, e.g., temperature observations, to one or more inputs (i.e., causes). The main thesis behind anthropogenic climate change is that man-made CO2 is the source of nearly all recent global warming. Using a technique known as slow-feature analysis, researchers have mapped the Pacific Ocean’s El Niño–Southern Oscillation cycle and the Hale sunspot cycle to centuries of temperature records from central England. While central England is not a pure proxy for the world at large, the ability to link such diverse dynamics is a powerful argument that our Earth's thermostat is controlled by natural forces far greater than mankind. Results connecting natural global ocean cycles and regional surface temperatures are not unique. Finally, the effort to relate prescribed climate model sensitivities – parameters that fit theoretical models to empirical data – to global temperature observations has been one of the great disappointments of anthropogenic warming theorists. Princeton physicist Dr. William Happer has written about the CO2 doubling sensitivity, which scales each doubling of atmospheric CO2 concentration to global temperature increase:

The doubling sensitivity S is how much the Earth’s average surface temperature will increase if the atmospheric concentrations of CO2 doubles. S is the most important single parameter in the debate over climate change.

As Happer goes on to note, the doubling parameter has been badly overestimated, and climate scientists have proposed more than fifty mechanisms to explain the discrepancy. Regardless, the theory is flawed, and the science is obviously not settled. Do not hold your breath waiting for the alarmists to admit it.